When you give little men power, they exploit the vulnerable

It has become an almost daily occurrence since Trump began his family separation policy last May: mothers and fathers taken away from their children, young boys and girls crying for their parents while border patrol chuckles in the background at the “orchestra;” the mystery of where young girls who were separated were being held and started the hashtag #wherearethegirls; and the horrific rampant abuse from Border Patrol Agents, both on the job and off. Between 2009 and 2014, the ACLU obtained documentation of nearly 30,000 pages of abuses by Border Patrol Agents.

Being called a “dog” or a “prostitute,” being beaten and threatened with rape, denied water and forced to stand naked in front of agents: these atrocities have happened to children, from the ages of 9 and 14. They come here scared, escaping violence and economic crisis. They are dehumanized and are considered contaminants in this country.

They are women and children. They are human beings.

A 4-year-old was sexually assaulted by a Texas policeman, who then threatened to have her undocumented mother deported to Guatemala if she reported him. A 6-year-old being abused sexually in detention was forced to sign a statement acknowledging that it was her responsibility to stay away from her abuser; she could only write the letter D to sign.


An employee in an Arizona facility housing migrant children was arrested for sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl. A Honduran woman identified as E.D, detained with her toddler, was sexually assaulted and was threatened with deportation if she reported her rapist. Recently, an ICE officer was apprehended and charged with murdering four women (all of whom were sex workers) and attempted murder of a fifth in Laredo, Texas. Less than 24 hours later, another officer was apprehended and charged with ten felony counts and one of incest in Medford, Oregon.

These trends are not indicative of a few bad apples that have seeped into the immigration system hellbent on doing harm. They are not ones that just slipped through the crack. These documents of abuse and murder, violence and degradation, are part of a larger culture of dehumanization of women and young children arrested and in detention. When people are not even considered people, when their humanity is stripped because of lies, of fear and of anger, then they become bodies that can be exploited by the scum and worst of this country; to be exploited by the little men.

When you ignore the truth and experiences of those fleeing violence in their home countries, believing migrants to being oxymoronically lazy and siphoning off government aid, and taking all our jobs, you remain complicit in the abuses that young children and migrants suffer after they are detained. You have wanted them to go away and now, not even considered human, you’ve doomed them to years of psychological trauma and fear. Would you wish that on your own children? On your sons? On your daughters? Would you wish that on a human being?

Is it easier to believe that those boys, girls, mothers and fathers fleeing economic injustice and violence are the root causes of America’s problems, over the idea that those wealthy elites in power have drained America’s once great resources and social safety nets through economic liberalization?

Open borders and the end of ICE does not bring crime and drugs and rapists. They are already in this country. And one of them sits in the highest office. It’s time to end the cruelty known as ICE.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Splinter / AP / Jeff Chiu) (Photo Credit 2: The Nation)

The US denying passports to people delivered by midwives is a modern-day witch hunt!

Twin brothers who were scheduled to prove that they were born in the United States. The twins were born with the assistance of a midwife in a border town. They now potentially face deportation.

It happened under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but it tapered off in 2009 after a lawsuit by the ACLU. Now, with Donald Trump in office, the number of Latinx citizens who have had their citizenship questioned and their passports revoked has reached hundreds, maybe even thousands. The reason? Being delivered by midwives in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.

The crackdown began because of accused fraud in the 1950s, whereby midwives and some physicians along the Southern border listed U.S. births for babies born in Mexico. The use of midwives in the region was common, a tradition, because the cost of hospital care was too high. It is nearly impossible to ascertain which midwife-granted birth certificates are fraudulent and which are not.

Throughout the early to mid-20thcentury, borders between the two countries were open, and Mexican and American citizens would travel back and forth on a regular basis. Ironically, it was more difficult to obtain dual citizenship in Mexico if the child was born in the United States to Mexican parents, and if the child was first registered in the United States, the child’s U.S. citizenship was rarely questioned. Immigration law followed an “oldest public document” policy; the child’s oldest public document was considered the most reliable evidence of a child’s place of birth. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a push to close the U.S-Mexican border followed in the wake of the legalization program enacted under President Reagan.

As the push to make citizenship more difficult and closing the border started ramping up, the government started filing fraud charges against midwives in south Texas. Between 1960 and 2008, more than 75 midwives were convicted of signing birth certificates for children they did not deliver. Midwives would end up guessing which certification were given out fraudulently, leading to overly-inclusive lists of names. The parents of the children that were named were not given notice that they were named, and were not given the opportunity to challenge the inaccuracy of the lists. What’s even more alarming was the fact that 250 midwives were deemed “suspicious” with 175 charges being dropped. The U.S. Government never did explain how or why they were considered under suspicion, but egregiously claimed that 15,000 midwife forgeries exist in south Texas. The effect has raised suspicion toward citizens born through midwives in certain regions, a rising witch hunt against midwives and an attack on the children they delivered.

As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in June 2009, U.S. citizens who wished to exit or enter the United States were required to have a valid U.S. passport or passport card. The process caused problems for citizens born to midwives. The passport approval process became a convoluted ordeal, forcing the filing of carious legal actions. Problems occurred at a port of entry when a U.S. citizen’s passport reveals birth by midwife, especially if the midwife is on the government’s suspicious or convicted lists. Passport issues also arose in the cases of U.S. citizens who have never left the United States after their birth.

As part of a settlement from a class action lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil rights and legal organizations – including the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, the international law firm Hogan & Hartson LLP, and Refugio del Rio Grande, Inc. – according to ACLU Racial Justice Program staff attorney Vanita Gupta, “Citizens will no longer be denied a passport solely because of their race, ancestry or because they happened to be born at home with a midwife.”

In 2017 alone, 971 people were denied passports. Those who have had their passports denied or revoked are in a state of limbo, their official birth certificate in doubt, and face possible detention and deportation. An attorney in Brownsville, Jamie Diez, said, “I’ve had probably 20 people who have been sent to the detention center—U.S. citizens.” Coupled with Trump’s crackdown on nonexistent “voter fraud” and campaigns for more restrictive voter identification laws in more conservative areas, especially Texas, those who have had their citizenship questioned may be barred from their legal right to vote.

According to immigrant attorney, Carlos Batara, “From a practical standpoint, the government actions are poorly reasoned…even in cases of seniors who may have been fraudulently registered as U.S. citizens at birth. On the other hand, if there was a fraud committed at the time of birth, they played no decision-making part. They did not commit the fraudulent act. Babies at birth are incapable of criminal intent. On the other hand, if their citizenship was fraudulently procured . . . To the extent they have lived an exemplary life, stayed out of trouble with the law, worked steadily and paid taxes, bought a home for their offspring, little, if any, public good is derived from stripping them of citizenship at such a late stage in their lives. Moreover, little, if any, positive benefit flows to the U.S. government from stripping their spouses and offspring, including grandchildren, of their citizenship . . . which was gained via the family patriarch’s presumed citizenship status. So what principles of legality or compassion, then, are served by challenging these seniors and turning their entire lives, and the lives of their families, upside down 50-60 years later? My view? Absolutely none.”

Why then are we so quick to launch a witch hunt against midwives and the children that they delivered?

 

(Photo Credit: Batara Immigration Law)

This Labor Day, support the country’s most militant workers: women and incarcerated workers

This Labor Day Weekend, while many observe the final holiday weekend that signifies the end of the summer, while politicians tweet out false message reveling in the American worker, and government and corporations systematically take away the rights of public/privatesector union workforces, women represent the largest group of low wage workers who have the most to lose from the Anti-Labor Movement; they will be serving your meals at restaurants, ringing you up at the registers for your family barbeque, and listening to your trivial complaints as you celebrate a holiday meant for them.

According to reports from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of the 23.5 million Americans working low-wage jobs, 19 millionare women. Traditional so-called feminine jobs –  such as office and administration assistance, food preparation and serving, and beauty and personal services – are low-wage work, held mostly by women. A third of these women have children, and lack child care options and education. By 2024, one in six of all positions will be in “low-wage women’s work.”

The misconception that low wage work is only completed by teenagers hoping for some quick “movie money” is a complete falsehood. In the workforce sector that pays less than a living wage, 90% of the womenare over twenty years old. With union membership at only 6.5% for the private sector, women are feeling the brunt of the anti-union movement.

Despite the lack of strengththat union leaders feel confronting the current administration and its hostility to minorities, union members and their allies continue to use striking and picketing to make headway, as can be seen throughout the country.

In West Virginia, teacher’s strikes initially resulted in no significant gains while union leaders claimed victory. Teachers and supporters revolted, chanting “Go back to the bargaining table! We are the union bosses!” and continued striking for five more days to secure more concessions from the state. The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), ending the shutdown for teachers after only nine days, angered and frustrated teachers. Around 70 percentof workers and parents wanted to continue the shutdown. In the end, the teachers took revenge on state legislators who criticized the strike by voting a majorityof them out of office.

While the teachers’ strike was ongoing, 1,400 communications workers went on strike. Some of the country’s most exploitable humans, currently incarcerated individuals,have organized a strike to end the abuses of the prison industrial complex. The motivations and purpose of the demonstrations, according to organizers, is a ‘“[Call] to an end to modern day slavery,’ they’re highlighting the 13thAmendment, which otherwise banned slavery, ‘except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’ Prisoners laboring for little or no wages is common practice, and those on strike are demanding an end to it, along with nine other demands, such as rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the restoration of the voting rights for incarcerated people and greater funding for rehabilitation services.”

This Labor Day, as we celebrate and possibly mourn the continued attacks on organized labor, we must also highlight the work of the country’s most vulnerable; women and those in prison. Against the rank and file leaders of the union, workers across the country are continuing the militant activism of the Labor Movement.

 

(Photo Credit 1: CNN) (Photo Credit 2: Chicago Sun-Times / AP / Jacquelyn Martin)

Newark, New Jersey, is the next Flint!

While Flint, Michigan, is still waiting for clean water, another water crisis is brewing, this time in a predominantly Black community in the largest city in New Jersey, Newark. It has been an ongoing fight between residents in the state and the city itself.

Newark school teachers and an environmental organization are preparing to file a lawsuit against both Newark and New Jersey, claiming that a lead tainted water problem has not been resolved. While the city denies the assertion (calling it “absolutely and outrageously false” and a politically motivated call to action in the heat of a mayoral campaign), state and district officials shut off water fountains in 30 schools in the city, in response to the testing that showed elevated levels of lead contaminating the water in the schools.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a federal report has noted that Newark’s lead levels are among the highest in the country over the last three years for water systems serving over 50,000 people. The NRDC also alleges that Newark unlawfully denied its public record requests that sought information about the water testing.

In a 2017 study on the drinking water, about 20 percent of samples came in above the Safe Drinking Water Act standards for lead concentrations. The highest ten percent of those samples averaged 26 parts per billion (ppb); the federal limit is 15 ppb and one address tested more than 9 times the standard.

Not only Newark is suffering from dangerous amounts of lead in their water, the whole state is affected. At least one sample from four out of five public water systems in New Jersey contained lead between 2013 and 2015.

It is not just lead threatening the state’s water supply. A cancer-causing chemical, PFAS (fluorinated compounds, including perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, found in food packaging and nonstick products), is more pervasive in New Jersey than any other state in the country. From 2013-2016, testing required by the EPA showed that 16 million Americans were being served water containing PFOA. 1.6 million New Jerseyans are drinking PFOA infected water, the most in any single state. PFOA is a manmade chemical and doesn’t breakdown naturally in the environment, leading scientists to believe that every American has some amount of the chemical in their bloodstream.

Sources for the fluorinated compounds in New Jersey include:
Naval Weapons Station Earle, (Monmouth County);
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, (Ocean County);
Solvay Specialty Polymer and Arkema, West Deptford (Gloucester County);
Dupont’s Chambers Works facility, Pennsville (Salem County).

Firefighting foam is blamed for the contamination in military sites. Even though the foam is no longer used in training, it is very likely that the chemicals have remained in the environment, and more importantly, in the water. In November, the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would institute enforceable standards for PFOA in drinking water at 14 parts per trillion, which is a stricter threshold than the federal government (at 70 parts per trillion enacted in 2016).

The moral of the story is: One does not need to look at red states for crisis in water contamination; these problems extend beyond red and blue states. New Jersey failed its citizens in providing clean and safe drinking water, and it will continue to fail until politicians are held accountable for the abysmal response to our poisoned drinking water.

This is a bottle of water from the tap.

 

(Photo Credit: WDEL)

 

The Hidden Victims of the Medicaid Work Requirements: The Native Population

The Trump administrationsignaled in January that they would allow states to impose Medicaid work requirements for any able-bodied individual who can work. The administration has approved such waivers to implement work requirements for Medicaid in three states; nearly ten other states are seeking such requirements. Despite having devastating effects on those in poverty who rely on Medicaid to survive, there is another group of individuals that Trump has targeted with work requirements; the native population.

The administration has attempted to reclassify native tribes as a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules would be illegal preferential treatments. The Health and Human Services Department has argued that “such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns.”

Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services confirmed in January that the HHS believes that tribes are a race and not a separate sovereign government, thus not exempting them from Medicaid work rules.

The decisionignores the centuries old treaties that have been in place since the times of President George Washington, reaffirmed by both Republican and Democratic presidents like Clinton, George W. Bush, and President Obama. Constitutionally, native populations are protected as separate nations. Tribes also maintained that they have precedent when it comes to health care exceptions, as Native Americans do not have to pay penalties for not having health coverage under the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.

Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during Obama’s administration and a member of the Cherokee nation, fired back, “The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans. It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world—they’ve paid through land and massacres—and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”

The Chair of the Tribal Technical Advisory Group, tribal leader W. Ron Allen,warned that without the exemption, “the Indian health system will not survive.” Most of the indigenous populations rely heavily on Medicaid resources, as unemployment and poverty on reservations are nearly three times the nation’s average (as high as 12% in 2016) since jobs are scarce. Lower federal spending on the Indian Health Service has also made many indigenous peoples reliant on supplemental Medicaid to fill in coverage gaps.

Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana and ten other states who either have or are asking to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, have more than 620,000 Native Americans who could be severely impacted by the requirements. More alarmingly, more states could be heading towards demanding work for continuation of Medicaid insurance. Some states, like Arizona which has asked for permission to exempt Native Americans from their proposed work requirements, could have the exemption rejected by federal officials. With the current administration looking towards full welfare reform, which nearly 3 million Native Americans rely on, it would be disastrous to indigenous groups living on reservations.

Though it is the latest attack on the native population in the country, it is not an isolated one from Trump. Last year’s proposed budget from the White House significantly cut funding from the Indian Health Service (which thankfully didn’t pass). This year, the White House budget proposed eliminating popular initiatives like the decades-old community health representative program, essential for the native community.

Last month, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan skipped HHS’ annual budget consultation with tribal leaders in Washington. Last year, then-HHS Secretary Tom Price joined in the meeting. Azar canceled last minute, and Hargan fell ill, leaving Associate Deputy Secretary Laura Caliguri to participate in their place.

The HHS’ civil rights office—while rejecting the Medicaid exemption—simultaneously announced new protections sought by conservative religious groups. The new protections would give health care workers who don’t want to provide abortion care, treat transgender patients seeking to transition or provide other services, a license to discriminateunder religious or moral grounds.

Work requirements are only the beginning of the devastating effects an entire overhaul the welfare state would have on Native Americans. Having already shouldered the burden of America’s colonizing spirit, they will suffer from losing any protections that the country has given back in a pitiful act of reparations.

New Jersey Must End the Slaughter of Black Mothers

While touting a more progressive and feminist agenda than his predecessor, New Jersey Governor Murphy signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, which will expand the protections of the state’s existing wage and hour law and amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to make discrimination in wages on the basis of any protected class an unlawful employment practice. The law should be applauded as a step in the right direction to fix the state’s pay gap disparity. However, New Jersey falls horrifically short when it comes to another women’s issue: maternal health. The maternal health of New Jersey’s women is one of the worst in the country; pregnancy-related deaths, while they are progressively climbing in the United States, is double the national average in the Garden State. Ranking 47thout of 50 in maternal deaths, according to America’s Health Rankings, a report by the United Health Foundations, in New Jersey 37 women die, on average, for every 100,000 live births. The national average is 20.

The disparities for black women in the state are even more grotesque, with African-Americans in New Jersey five times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy related complications. New Jersey’s maternal mortality remains worsethan that of Mississippi(26.5 deaths per 100,000 live births). While New Jersey has one of the lowest infant mortality, the racial gap between Black and White infants is one of the largest in the country. Black babies in New Jersey are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than White babies.

According to a proclamation celebrating the state’s first ever Maternal Health Awareness Day, the leading causes of pregnancy-related death include cardiovascular disease, pregnancy-related heart failure, embolism, septic shock and cerebral hemorrhage. Other factors include obesity, chronic health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, lack of prenatal care, and drug use.

Members of Murphy’s cabinet have highlighted their concerns about the disparity and have proposed ways to help reduce it. Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the Department of Health Commissioner, and Carole Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Humans Services, have pledged to improve data collection and modernize government systems to provide more efficient, better quality of care that results in fewer racial disparities in general. They also promised to better coordinate government services to help address housing, transportation, nutrition, and other social factors that have a tremendous impact on the health of vulnerable residents.

Toxic racism, especially in northern New Jersey, plays a significant factor in the inequalities between Black and White women, one that transcends economic or healthcare access. New Jersey only has 15% percent Black population, yet they are the worse off for many of the state’s current health, economic, and criminalization issues. Wealthy, well-educated Black women with quality healthcare experience poorer outcomes than White women, regardless of their economic or social status. Improving the current trends of lack of care for Black women requires greater awareness, but changes in healthcare policy also need to be addressed.

Finally, New Jersey’s Black population is overwhelmingly in poverty, far beyond their White counterparts. The state average rate of poverty is 10.9%. For Whites, it’s 8.3%; for African-Americans the rate is 19.7%. For Black women in New Jersey, poverty is a reproductive rights crisis. Poverty leads to lack of pre-natal care, which contributes directly to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the United States. New Jersey must address universal access to real healthcare for all. Otherwise, the issue of maternal mortality will continue to besmirch the reputation of the Garden State.

 

(Infographic Credit: New Jersey State Health Assessment Data)

New York votes to remove guns from domestic abusers: Will they also disarm the police?

Praising New York’s reaction to the rising concerns of gun violence in the country, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he will sign into law legislation that would amend state law that passed after the Sandy Hook killings that previously prohibited domestic abusers from owning pistols and revolvers, but only applied to some selected misdemeanors.

Governor Cuomo said, “New York is once again leading the way to prevent gun violence, and with common sense reform, break the inextricable link between gun violence and domestic violence. Half of the women who are murdered in this country are murdered by an intimate partner.” Firearms had been used in 35 domestic killings in 2016 in New York State.

The law, which is being changed slightly to align with federal law, passed 41-19 in the Senate and 85-32 in the state Assembly. When enacted, it can prevent someone from getting or renewing a license for a gun if the person is the subject of an arrest warrant for alleged crimes.

While a step in the right direction, the law raises a question: if you’re going to disarm domestic abusers, will you disarm the police officers that make up a significant portion of the perpetrators of domestic abuse?

In an information sheet by the National Center for Women and Policing, two studies have illustrated the staggering violence in police families, with the survivors often unable to rely on the precise institution that should protect them from such abuse: “At least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population.” A third study done with older and more experienced officers found a 24 percent rate; meaning that domestic violence is two to four times more common among police families.

Reports against police families are handled informally, usually without an official report, investigation, or even a check of the victim’s safety, often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes. Often police officers who are found guilty face no consequences for their actions.

If we’re discussing taking guns away from abusers, police officers who are violent to their families should be disarmed just like any other abuser that will be disarmed in New York, not to mention prosecuted and immediately terminated from their position, as an article in The Atlantic noted, “If there’s any job that domestic abuse should disqualify a person from holding, isn’t it the one job that gives you a lethal weapon, trains you to stalk people without their noticing, and relies on your and discretion to protect the abused against domestic abusers?”

In any conversation surrounding gun violence and domestic abuse, the police need to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrate, not just out on the streets, but in their homes and against the ones they supposedly love.

Now is the time to discuss and act about disarming the police.

 

(Photo Credit: For A World Without Police)

Marielle Franco spoke for Afro-Brazilians, and for that she was killed

Marielle Franco was gunned down in her white Chevy after giving a speech at Rio’s House of Black Women on March 14th, in what appeared to be an assassination and an attempt to silence what Franco was best known for: speaking out against police brutality on Afro-Brazilians and marginalized people in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. If those who fired the nine bullets at Franco thought they would silence a movement to address the rampant corruption and racism in Brazil, they were sorely wrong. The next day, tens of thousands of people rushed into the streets across Brazil to protest her murder. Many hoped that her tragic death would shine light on corruption of police officials, violence in the Maré slums between gangs and police and the “federal intervention” of the favelas by President Michel Temer, blaming rising crime as an excuse to put the army in charge of Rio’s state police forces and prisons. Franco was vehemently against the intervention, serving on a council commission to oversee the occupation.

Franco was a light of hope for marginalized people residing in Rio’s slums where violence and police intervention is frequent. A resident of the favelas herself, she worked for a scholarship to Rios Pontifical Catholic University, studying social sciences and graduated with a master’s degree in public administration. She became militant after a stray bullet during a shootout between police and gang members killed her friend in 2005.

A black single mother and a lesbian, Franco fought for single mothers, women, gay rights and favela residents. She addressed the rampant racial inequality and police brutality in Rio, an Afro-Brazilian elected to a government post which has been ruled by rich middle-aged elite white men, in a country where more than half the population is black or mixed race. One woman, an Afro-Brazilian nurse who attended a “Black Genocide” protest in downtown Rio after Franco’s death and who refused to give her name because of fear of police intervention, claimed, “Why am I afraid? Because I’m a black woman, and my life is worth nothing here.”

While Brazil touts being post-racial, believing a black/white divide is expressly imported from America and never happened in the country, critics claim the myth silences all conversations concerning discrimination and violence. Every day, 112 Black or mixed-race Brazilians are killed. Making up 54% of the national population, Black and mixed-race Brazilians account for 71% of all homicides. From 2005-2015, the proportion of Black and mixed-race Brazilians killed rose by 18% while the figure for whites dropped by 12%. Meanwhile, white politicians in power are attempting to divert the cause of Franco’s death away from discussing race. “Her bloodshed can’t be used as an opportune moment to talk about hate. When you talk about a black-white divide, you are contributing to this division,” announced white national senator from Rio Grande do Sul state, Ana Amélia. In 2017, 1,124 people were killed at the hands of the police; 80% of those killed were Black or mixed-race.

Franco denounced police killings of Black favela residences, with special criticism for Rio’s 41st Military Police Battalion, known as “the death brigade” for killing and shooting Black youth. Franco’s last tweet condemned the death of Matheus Melo, a young Black favela resident who was shot coming out of a church with his girlfriend, “How many more people need to die before this war ends?” He was only one of the latest victims in a conflict between drug traffickers, militias and police in Rio state.

Franco’s killers have not been caught. Federal prosecutors in Rio believe the evidence points to corrupt police officers. The bullets came from police ammunition stocks, and the location of her murder seems to have been meticulously chosen, since her killers followed her from the meeting and chose a “blind spot” where street cameras were not functioning. How many more people need to die before this war ends?

 

(Photo Credit 1: Whose Knowledge) (Photo Credit 2: The Guardian / Marcelo Sayao / EPA)

It’s Hell to Work at the Happiest Place on Earth

Yeweinisht Mesfin aka “Weiny”

Disney is supposedly the cornerstone of every American family’s dream; two and a half kids, a white picket fence, and a family vacation to the Happiest Place on Earth. But the reality of Disney World employees that make your trip extra magical is anything but happy: low wages, employee poverty, a weakened union, and company-proposed “bonuses” that force workers to jump through additional, strenuous hoops in order to receive their justly deserved benefits.

The entire company posted a quarterly net income of $4.42 billion in February and, thanks to the Republican tax cut, the company posted $9.3 billion dollars for 2017. Any proposed bonuses of $1000 for lower level employees would only constitute 8% of a nearly $1.6 billion expected windfall from tax cuts, and the promised bonuses are now bargaining chips meant to force the unions that represent Disney World and Disneyland to agree to lower wage increases of only $.50 or 3%, whichever is larger. Already, the 80,000 nonunion workers saw $250 addition to their paycheck, with a promise of $750 to complete the bonus; the union workers, numbering 38,000 employees, have seen nothing. For a company reported to have pulled in nearly $10 billion in the last year, workers who make the parks run smoothly every single day deserve to have living wages, without the fear of homelessness or food insecurity.

Many employees do suffer from being homeless and are food insecure. For example, nearly 85 % of cast members make less than $15 per hour, and 11% have experienced homelessness in the past two years. Wages at Walt Disney World are 68% lower than the national average, some working for as little as $13,000 per year. Meanwhile, in an attempt to limit the number of housekeeping employees, predominantly women, Walt Disney World offers guests “incentives” in the form of $40 Disney gift cards in exchange for declining housekeeping services each day. Though declining is still in its testing phase, it is a way for the company to save money and cut costs, at the expense of the “mousekeepers” who are employed at the resorts.

While wages at the park for most employees are subpar, housekeepers and custodians at both American parks suffer the most from the lack of a living wage, as seen in the story of Eritrean immigrant Yeweinisht “Weiny” Mesfin. A loyal night custodian in Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, Mesfin went missing after Thanksgiving weekend in 2016. She was found dead, on December 19 in her car outside a 24 Hour Fitness Gym. She had suffered a heart attack on November 30, was struggling with homelessness and living in her car in front of the gym she had a membership with so she could take a shower for work. A reliable employee, she worked six days a week, at 48 hours a week, and was unable to afford an apartment even though she worked full time hours. Three days after she went missing, she was automatically terminated as per company policy.

Angered by Disney’s dismissive attitude concerning the plight of Disney employees struggling to secure wage increases sufficient to pull them out of poverty, former custodian and friend of Mesfin, Vanessa Muñoz, wrote of her friend’s death, nearly a year later, “Someone out there on third shift at Disney now wears my Weiny’s beanie, her sweater, shirts and pants. Someone out there is about to give as much as Weiny did for a company that refuses to pay the employees an affordable living wage.” It may be too late for Mesfin, but maids and other employees at Walt Disney deserve living wages as they provide a magical experience for all guests to the parks.

If you could, please sign this petition in solidarity with Disney workers, who are being strong-armed into signing a contract against their interests for the bonuses that they were promised. The Walt Disney World Office number is 407-939-2273. Tell them Weiny sent you. #StopDisneyPoverty

Pay raises, affordable healthcare: Teachers strike across the country

West Virginia teachers, wildcat strikers, on the move

When teachers in West Virginia closed every school in the state for nine days to strike for better wages and better healthcare plans, other educators, and the public around the country, took notice. One of the key issues of the West Virginia teachers was the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, and the increasing payments from employees’ paychecks alongside the lack of quality take-home pay for teachers. West Virginian teachers rank 48th in the country in terms of pay, and any raise agreed upon between the West Virginia Education Association and the state would not have been enough to cover the rising PEIA costs.

Instead of caving to the governments’ demands, and suggestions to return to work from the union leaders, West Virginia teachers continued striking two days longer than the union had wanted; when a tentative “agreement” for a five percent raise for teachers and three percent raise for public sector workers was announced by union leaders, the teachers balked, rejecting the agreement and voting to continue the strike, shouting, “We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table!” The fear would be that the raises would not do anything to fix the more pressing concern of rising healthcare costs, which, teachers argued, would only have short term impact. Chants echoed at the state capitol while the Senate was in session, “Pass that bill or we walk out!” “Hey, hey, whaddya say, fund PEIA!” In the end, instead of a watered down 3-4% raise, the Senate passed a 5% raise and will consider long term action for fixing the state’s public employee healthcare system.

News of the success in the teachers’ strike seems to be emboldening educators in other states. Oklahoma teachers, the lowest paid in the country, are considering a strike, the first major strike since 1990, to demand higher pay from the State Legislature. Teachers in the state are so underpaid that there has been an educator crisis, forcing the state the allow for three day weekends to entice teachers to work in Oklahoma.

On February 26, graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched a strike to protect tuition waivers, which the university is planning to roll back by allowing academic departments to exclude students in their program from being members of the Graduate Student Union (GEO) bargaining unit. The strike also aims to making graduate education accessible for all students, demanding comprehensive childcare, healthcare and financial provisions to keep access to graduate level education open to poor and working-class people. The “Education for All” proposal was announced on day four of the strike.

In New Jersey, Jersey City educators have voted to strike, demanding relief from the rising cost of insurance. The union and teachers are demanding a reform of a Christie Era law, signed in 2011, called Chapter 78. The law required teachers to begin paying for their healthcare costs by percentages that increased over a four-year phase-in. Now that the four years are over, the district is permitted to allow teachers to pay a lower contribution than Chapter 78 requires, something the school board does not want to give in on. Any raises from the contract would not cover the cost of the healthcare payments, as one special education teacher pointed out, “I’m making less than I was five years ago.” As of today, the teachers are still working without a contract.

The rising tide of labor, like waking a slumbering giant, is a welcome relief form the ongoing attack on unions across the country, especially during the Trump administration. This time, instead of relying on union bosses, teachers relied on a collective, on each other, and on public support. And they’re winning.

University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign graduate students, strikers, on the move

 

(Photo Credit 1: In These Times / West Virginia Education Association / Facebook) (Photo Credit 2: In These Times / GEO / Facebook)